Downing Street has emphatically denied claims that Boris Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings initially argued against strict measures that would have protected vulnerable people from the coronavirus outbreak.
A report in The Sunday Times claimed that Mr Cummings set out the government’s strategy in a private meeting in February, which those present characterised as “herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad”.
However, Mr Cummings drastically changed tack after a meeting with the government’s scientific experts weeks later, becoming an outspoken advocate for shutdown measures.
One senior Tory told the newspaper: “Dominic himself had a conversion.
“He’s gone from ‘herd immunity and let the old people die’, to ‘let’s shut down the country and the economy’.”
In an unusual public intervention, a Downing Street spokesperson said the comments were a “highly defamatory fabrication” and included quotes from meetings that were “invented”.
The allegation drew widespread condemnation on social media and comes amid concern about so-called herd immunity, a scientific concept which relies on large numbers of people getting the disease and becoming immune as a result.
If enough people become resistant, the virus can no longer spread through the population. However, the idea is controversial as it could put the most vulnerable at risk.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, recently insisted that herd immunity was not government strategy after the chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance raised the idea.
Mr Hancock said the government’s overriding goal was to “protect life” and herd immunity was “a scientific concept, not a goal or a strategy”.
According to the newspaper, Mr Cummings initially backed the idea of herd immunity as the best way to resist a second wave of coronavirus in the winter.
But the PM’s top aide was said to have had a “penny-drop moment” at a meeting of the government’s scientific experts in March and shifted dramatically towards shutdown measures.
A minister said: “Seeing what was happening in Italy was the galvanising force across government.”
Critics seized on the report, with Labour demanding greater clarity on the government’s strategy to combat the outbreak.
Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said: “Attitudes like this will not be forgiven and people will be sickened by such comments.
“Boris Johnson needs to show the leadership that this crisis demands.
“We need clarity from government messages and ministers must channel all their energies into protecting people’s health, wellbeing and livelihoods.”
A Downing Street spokesperson said: “This is a highly defamatory fabrication which was not put to No10 by the Sunday Times before publication.
“The article also includes a series of apparent quotes from meetings which are invented.”
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